Tag Archive | "Food"

Food Distributors Struggle With Thanksgiving Meals

The drop in food donations has several distribution groups running low on supplies this Holiday season. photo by Maia Efrem

The drop in food donations has several distribution groups running low on supplies this Holiday season. photo by Maia Efrem

As super-sized balloons bobbed through Manhattan in Thursday’s annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a white and red trailer led a different procession into the South Bronx.

The trailer is the command center for Mercy Chefs, a Virginia-based cooking crew that distributes food to victims to hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters. For the second year the group drove to Hunts Point to serve hot Thanksgiving meals to cash-strapped families in the Bronx’ poorest neighborhood.

At 8 a.m., the trailer and a handful of follow cars stopped in front of the Hunts Point Recreation Center on Manida Street, which on Sundays houses the New Season Christian Center church. New Season partnered with the Bowery Mission in Manhattan to bring in the Mercy Chefs, which also sent teams to sites in the North Bronx and Brooklyn.

Gary Leblanc, director of the Mercy Chefs, brought three other cooks and enough food to serve up to 400 individuals. Huge plastic bags filled with carved turkey, potatoes, stuffing and gravy packed the trailer’s hulking freezer.

“At a hurricane or flood site, there is a tremendous sense of urgency; people need power and water and food,” Leblanc said. “Here it is a different sense of urgency because demand for food is up so much this year.”

Numbers from the Food Bank for New York City support Leblanc’s assertion. More than 90 percent of the group’s 1000 citywide distribution centers reported an increase in the number of people looking for food handouts this year, and half of those reported seeing an increase of 25 percent or more.

And while demand is up, the supply of donated food is down. In the wake of the recession, many donors, both private and public, simply do not have the surpluses in food or cash to give this year. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) reported that 55 percent of assistance agencies in New York City said they weren’t able to distribute enough food to meet demands.

The food shortage is a major problem during the holidays, as many distribution centers around the city organize meals and food giveaways for Thanksgiving and Christmas that are larger than usual. The Rev. Paul Block, pastor at the Lutheran Transfiguration Food Pantry in Hunts Point said his group had difficulty with its Thanksgiving handouts this year. Lutheran Transfiguration does not organize a meal, but instead hands out whole turkeys the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Last year, the church’s food bank handed out 80 turkeys, but this year they only gave out 40. A donor, who Block would not name, was unable to supply the annual funds to purchase the birds. Block said he contemplated dipping into the bank’s funds to make up the difference, but decided otherwise.

Even the Bowery Mission struggled to fill its storage garage this year with food donations for the annual Thanksgiving giveaways. Photo by Maia Efrem

Even the Bowery Mission struggled to fill its storage garage this year with food donations for the annual Thanksgiving giveaways. Photo by Maia Efrem

“That would reduce the amount of food we’d be able to give out on Mondays for the rest of the year,” Block said. “Thanksgiving is just one day, and it can be an extravagance. How may of us really eat entire turkeys?”

Supplies are equally as tight with the Bowery Mission, which each year distributes approximately 350,000 meals to people in New York City. According to Efrain Ramos, the Bowery’s supervisor of outreach, the food pantry was 500 turkeys short this year after an unnamed donor group backed down from its 2008 commitment.

Ramos also said the Bowery’s food distribution warehouse in Pennsylvania, which is usually fully stocked before the holidays, is far below its usual capacity.

“Times are hard for everyone, and some people just can’t give,” said Ramos, 40. “I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a month. There are people relying on you to bring food, and you don’t want to let them down.”

Ramos said the Bowery scrambled to meet its food obligations, but rounded up donations from area and nationwide grocers, and cash contributions from private givers. Instead of asking for general food contributions, Ramos said, the Bowery organized food drives for specific foods such as cranberry sauce, stuffing and gravy at area schools and churches.

Many of those supplies ended up in LeBlanc’s trailer. He and his crew spent the better part of the week before Thanksgiving at the Bowery cooking 600 turkeys and hundreds of pounds of Thanksgiving fixings. The Chefs then flash-froze the food in vacuum-sealed the food, which they divvied up between the three meal sites.

They packed the food in the $100,000 trailer, which is powered by a 12-kilowatt gas generator, and supplies a water filtration system and a propane line. The trailer, Leblanc said, designed to distribute 4000 meals a day, and houses a six-burner industrial stove, three triple-rack ovens, two large refrigerators and a 10-foot long cooking and preparation table. All the chefs had to do was warm the meals in an oven and serve them.

However Leblanc said his group also faced shortfalls this year. Leblanc developed the Mercy Chefs idea in 2005 after working as a volunteer chef cooking meals for victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The concept was a hit, and Leblanc quickly raised enough funding for six trailers and a staff of 32 volunteer chefs.

He said his group spends approximately $70,000 on groceries each year. But the majority of the food comes from major distributors in the form of donations. The former flood of food donations, Leblanc said, has slowed in recent months. He believes it’s because companies are no longer producing surpluses.

“It’s been more restricted this year, and people are very precise with their giving,” Leblanc said. “We’ve had to push on people a little harder this year. We’ve had to be much wiser with our resources.”

Leblanc and his crew showed up in Manhattan after working for two weeks in San Leon, Texas. The group had been feeding aid workers rebuilding two churches damaged in 2008 when Hurricane Ike slammed the area.

Mary Jo Hencye, a chef from Sarasota, Fla, was not in San Leon, but made the drive up from Virginia to help in the Bronx. Hencye volunteered with the Mercy Chefs in the Bronx in 2008 as well.

“In a disaster, people have some of the same needs as here, but in a way the situation here is a little more sad,” Hencye said. “In a serious disaster it seems so devastating but you know people are going to be able to put their lives back together. Here, this is their life.”

As Hencye and Leblanc began emptying bags into heated pans, the smell of gravy and sweet potatoes floated into the neighborhood. Rivera and fellow pastor Phillip Bonano walked out of the recreation center carrying armloads of pamphlets advertising the free meals. The two men then began knocking on nearby doors, telling neighbors about the 11 a.m. serving time.

Soon, a small collection of people queued up in front of the recreation center.

“I want to see what kind of flavor they have going on there,” said Ron Mack, 50, who stood outside the facility with his pit bull Roxy.

After heating a heaping tray of white meat, Leblanc walked into the recreation center with the day’s first serving. The group still had 45 minutes to spare until mealtime, and the trailer bustled with activity.

“People ask why we come here away from our own families on Thanksgiving,” Leblanc said. “The real question is why more people don’t.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Neighborhoods, FoodComments (4)

Heather Mills Picks Up the Check for a Vegan Cafe in Hunts Point

By Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills at the opening ceremony of VBites Oct 2 - Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills at the opening ceremony of VBites Oct 2 - Photo by Wanda Hellmund

Heather Mills won millions in her bitter divorce from Paul McCartney, but the tabloid did direct damage to her public image. Now, she’s using some of that money to create good will and good health in the South Bronx by opening a vegan take-out cafe in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, Hunts Point.

But so far, free food seems to be  the big draw at VBites, which opened in October. The vegan message seems to be secondary.

“Can I get hot dogs and chicken please?” said Amparo Espinosa, 25, as she stepped up to the counter. Her meal doesn’t sound vegan, but it is. The “hot dogs” and “chicken” are actually made with meat-free soy substitutes.

The cafe is handing out free take-away vegan food every Wednesday to local residents in need through a $1 million food donation by Mills. Jenny Cantarero, a 35-year old mother of two, comes frequently. “The kids love it and it’s healthy,” she said. Her six-year old son Ronal is looking over the counter to see what they get this time. “I love it,” he said. “I wanna get more.”

Getting people to enjoy vegan food was one of the goals of Mills when she opened the VBites cafe, which is named after her vegan food brand based in the UK. “We want to get children off fast food,” said Mills. But instead of expecting them to switch from a burger to plain vegetarian food, Mills proposed to replace “like for like,” meat-free versions of fast food favorites like hot dogs and burgers. “People can eat exactly what they like already,” Mills said, “but it’s much better for them and their family.”

The take-out cafe is located in the main building of the Hunts Point Alliance for Children (HPAC). The project was born two years ago when Mills met James Costa, executive member on HPAC’s board, in Los Angeles. “She was talking about a food line,” said Costa.  “And we were thinking about how to bring healthy food into the neighborhood and we just brought those ideas together.”

Mills became convinced that the idea had potential after running a pilot version of VBites for the last year. The project, called the NoBeef Cafe, is located in the non-profit organization The Point and prepares free vegan meals as well. It will remain in operation.

On last week’s menu: chicken curry and beef stew prepared by chef Kelston Bascom with Mills’ products. “People like it,” Bascom said. “In the beginning, only two kids showed up.” Now, every seat is packed and Bascom said the cafe usuallydraws 45 to 60 people every Thursday.

With the NoBeef Cafe running, Mills was ready to open the VBites Cafe. “We certainly wanted to make sure that having a free vegan cafe is actually something people would enjoy – and they do,” said Mills. She said she beame a vegan after she was hit by a police motorcycle in 1993, and part of a leg. Vegan food made her healthy again, she said, and that is why she wants to make it more accessible.

Mills hopes that VBites Cafe in Hunts Point is going to encourage families to start eating vegan and then demanding vegan food in their local supermarkets and fast food chains. That is a huge challenge. Even though Hunts Point residents live next to the huge wholesale food market, they have little access to fresh produce in their local grocery stores.

But even if kids and their parents start to like vegan food, it is not guaranteed that they can afford to buy it on a regular basis in an area like Hunts Point, where 45.5 percent of residents live below the poverty line.  VBite’s burgers sell for an equivalent of $2 per slice on their online store while a complete hamburger at McDonalds costs $1. This applies just to VBite products, which are so far only available for purchase in the UK. If a family starts to switch to a vegan diet, there are many extra expenses. A gallon of cow’s milk is certainly cheaper than vegan alternatives such as soy or rice milk. And while VBite products are easy to cook – simply microwave – many Bronx residents will not know how to prepare vegan meals from scratch at home.

Vegan cooking classes at the non-profit organization Project Hope helped residents incorporate vegan cuisine in their routine. Cantarero said they explained how to use soy and other vegan ingredients and now she is teaching her friends how to cook vegan.

Mills is not planning on expanding VBites anywhere else in the Bronx for now, while she keeps her main focus on the British market, where she just opened her first vegan fast-food restaurant.

The profit made from the UK restaurant and the online shop are supposed to help fund projects like the VBites Cafe. The HPAC hopes to find new donors to support it after the money from Mills runs out in about five years, but so far nothing  has been set up yet.

For now, VBites Cafe brings healthy and free food onto tables of many families who could not afford it otherwise. It might not change Hunts Point into a vegan neighborhood, but it seems to have an effect on kids. “I try to eat more healthily but it is difficult,” said Anacelia Gomez, 16, a student at Jane Addams High School.  “We have little to no healthy food in our school cafeteria”. Although she still has to get used to the taste, she could imagine having vegan food in her school cafeteria soon. Nine-year old Angelique Taveras could not believe that what she was eating was vegan. “It’s really good,” she said. “When I found out its soy it was even better because I wasn’t eating an animal.”

Posted in Bronx Blog, Bronx Life, Bronx Neighborhoods, FoodComments (1)

Urban Gardener Looks for a New Dream to Plant

By Sarah Wali

Last month, Tanya Fields got a call she had been dreading from Michael Holosyzk, regional manager at the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation.  Liberated Urban Farm, the plot of land she had spent $500 and four months cultivating, would be cleared to make room for a playground.

Adjacent to the Fox Street Playground is an empty lot Fields hopes to turn into an urban farm.

Next to the Fox Street Playground is an empty lot Fields hopes to turn into an urban farm. Photo by Tanya Fields

“He called me on Thursday and told me they are excavating on Monday so if there’s anything you want you should go tomorrow and get it,” said Fields.

She chuckles at his suggestion.   To start an urban farm, Fields and a team of community volunteers had to make raised beds, a gardening tool used to protect fertile soil from possibly polluted city soil by lining the dug-up earth with plywood.  Where would she put the plywood?  They had also planted decorative plants known to urban farmers as ornamentals.  They had no place to put them either.

So she left the garden untouched.   When she came home from work that Monday, Parks and Recreation had cleared the land.  The newly planted flowers and trees were replaced with a half-acre of overturned dirt.

“It’s gone,” she said.  “It was bulldozed, it’s gone.  The raised beds, the flowers — they’re gone. “

Of 152 community gardens in the Bronx, 72 are currently facing the same fate as the Liberated Urban Farm.  Started by neighborhood activists and financed through their fundraising efforts, these plots aren’t legal and so the gardeners can’t stop the city from tearing them down.

Aresh Javadi, board member of the gardening advocacy group More Gardens!, works with threatened gardens to create awareness and political support for their cause.   According to Javadi, the main problem is the lack of clear legal framework for obtaining and keeping community gardens in New York City.

Instead, prospective gardeners must contact the Department of Housing and Preservation to make sure the city doesn’t have plans for the lot, and then wait for approval, a process that could take months and sometimes even years.

Javadi instead urges would-be gardeners to just plunge in.

“Buy bolt cutters at the local hardware store and open the garden gates,” he said.

Javadi encourages green-thumbed activists to clear the land they are interested in farming and rally support from neighbors and politicians to expedite the licensing process.    By winning this battle, says Javadi, they are helping to fight the legal war.

No laws insure the security of the more than 600 community gardens in the five boroughs.   While yearly licenses can be granted by Green Thumbs, there are no guarantees for renewal.

Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani made this clear on Jan. 10, 1999.  The city was in an economic boom, and housing was scarce. In an effort to raise more money, he announced he had allocated 115 of 700 community gardens for sale to the commercial market in May. “This is a free-market economy,” he said on a WABC radio show that  January. “The era for communism is over.”

The city’s community gardeners were furious. Protests in front of City hall blocked the streets for hours, and 92 activists were arrested for civil disobedience.   But demonstrators weren’t the only ones in court.   New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer charged that Giuliani’s attempted sale of the gardens would break state environmental laws.

Finally, two days before the auction, Bette Midler’s New York Restoration Project and the Trust for Public Land struck a $4 million deal with Giuliani.  They would buy 60 of the lots, be caretakers for the other 55, and, in return, the lawsuit against the mayor’s office was dropped.

In 2002, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg began the first of his three terms, he revisited the issue of community gardening.  An agreement between Bloomberg and Spitzer laid out, for gardeners, a system that required the approval of politicians and council members for the city to take back plots from gardeners.

Four years later, Bloomberg signed another agreement with Spitzer that gave gardeners five years to rally support from community leaders and prove their worth to their communities.

That’s why Javadi encouraged prospective farmers to take up guerilla farming.   By first putting their money and efforts into the gardens and then rallying for support, More Gardens! hopes to keep community gardens on the political agenda.

For urban farmers like Field, this can be risky.  The single mother of four has been living on Fox Street in a small two bedroom apartment since 2002.  She could see the huge playground and basketball court across the street from her living room window.

“It seemed really strange to me that there was a plot of earth near a playground that hadn’t been built on,” she said.

But she brushed her concerns aside and focused first on completing her B.A. in Political Science at Baruch College then finding work.  She began as an Environmental Justice Activist with Mother’s on the move.  Her work with mothers on the move had opened her eyes to economic, social and environmental issues facing the people of Hunts Point.   So when she decided to start her gardening adventure, she was determined it would yield more than just tomatoes, sunflowers and basil.

“I live in a community that has five shelters in a three-block radius,” she said. “I can’t fart without hitting someone who might be touched by this.”

Eventually she became an Outreach coordinator with with Sustainable South Bronx, a non-profit whose mission is to create programs that address policy and planning issues in the Hunts Point area. As a program assistant with Sustainable South Bronx, she worked to inform the community of their role in creating and implementing laws and procedure.  She was shocked by the abundance of health problems in the Hunts Point area, including asthma, diabetes and obesity.

Fields decided to attack the root of these problems. “One of the parts that I really looked at that affects so many communities is lack of access to food,” she said.  “What people are consuming because of that lack of quality food, and how the psychosis of poverty manifests itself in the choices that we make in terms of what we put into our body.”

She immersed herself in her work with Sustainable South Bronx, and eventually became a program assistant for Majora Carter LLC, the private for-profit consulting group that lead by Majora Carter, creator of  Sustainable South Bronx.   The harder she worked, the more concerned she became about the community around her. She could still see the half-acre of empty land from her window, but didn’t consider starting an urban farm until the issues she had been addressing at work hit home.  Fields had gained more than 25 pounds since she moved to Fox Street, and her kids had developed serious respiratory problems.

“I’m doing this out of need,” she said.  “I was tired of buying the bad avocados at the supermarket.  I was seeing children in the community get too big and I watched myself get too big.”

Fields found that in her Hunts Point neighborhood, part of the second poorest congressional district in the country, single women just like her ran three out of four households.  Convinced that poverty is tied to gender, she decided to create a community garden that would teach as well as feed.

“I was thinking about the real business side of that would teach them real skills, things they could put on a resume,” she said.

The idea was to create a community garden that would force those participating to create a viable business model to sell their produce.  The women would develop a marketing plan; find buyers; identify aspects of the project they would not be able to do themselves, such as transporting their products, and create partnerships with other vendors in the community.

So, in June she found a partner in field manager Dwaine Lee, a co-worker at Sustainable South Bronx who had experience in farming.  Over the summer Lee provided technical assistance on how to set-up the plot of land for growing, and assisted with funding.   He also helped Fields get in touch with Just Foods, a non-profit organization that connects local growers with the communities around them.   They gained the support of Just Food’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network, a program that allows community members to pay an annual fee of $400 to $600 and receive enough vegetables to feed a two or three people on a weekly basis.

The project seemed to be moving along smoothly.  Fields and Lee began to raise awareness on their project, and a steady stream of volunteers came to assist with the garden.  They cleared the debris, and put in raised beds.  They planted hydrangea, an ornamental flower, cherry sandalwood trees and butterfly bushes to attract pollinating bees.

With the garden created and the community behind them, they focused their efforts on garnering political support.  On Sept. 26, Fields threw the Liberated  Urban Farm Family Fun Block Party, and invited neighbors, politicians and community garden advocates.   Over 100 people attended the event, including council member Maria del Carmen Arroyo.

Yet her political activities and hard work couldn’t stop Parks and Recreation from tearing down the garden in November.  Now, Fields has turned for help to the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, a grassroots organization that promotes community gardens through political advocacy.

Karen Washington, president of the coalition and a long-time community gardening activist, created the group to insure the security of community gardens around the New York area.    Like Fields, Washington started with the empty lot in front of her house on Prospect Avenue in 1988.  From there she has created a group of 10 community gardens in the Bronx that regularly supply fruits and vegetables for the East Tremont Farmer’s market, called La Familia Verde (The Green Family).

Because of her success in creating almost a dozen community gardens in the Bronx, Washington has emerged as a leader in the legal fight for community gardens.   She attributes her success to being able to make informed arguments that politicians will listen to.

“You always follow protocol,” she said.  “Then when you go and meet your adversary, you know you’re facts and you go in there educated strong and with the nonviolent quietness of a mouse.  You don’t have to raise your voice because your words are so powerful people listen.”

It is with this philosophy that Washington began the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, and has expanded beyond the Bronx and created partnerships with some of New York’s biggest community gardening activists.  Their goal is to get politicians to understand the impact and significance of community gardens.

“What I try to do is make people accountable,” she said. ”I know the politicians hear what is going on in the neighborhoods, but some of them don’t take the time out to go and see.”

To carry out this task, she created the Legislative Committee of the New York City Community Gardeners Coalition, made up of three community gardeners, including Javadi.  The group has created a list of nine recommendations for legislation.   They ask for classification as state parks, first pick when lots become available and the opportunity to create gardens in communities that lack open space.

While pro-green politicians such as Rep. Jose E. Serrano have stood beside the gardeners, the coalition still faces strong opposition from proponents of affordable housing.

Yet for the gardeners, affordable housing and urban gardening should go hand in hand.   Urban gardens create a sense of community, and are a way for people to have a direct interest in their neighborhoods.  This, says Fields, could help instead of hurt housing development.

“It gives people an investment in the community,” she said.  “When you do have people who have money who come into the community it’s not as scary because they feel like they do have a vested interest in the community.“

Standing in front of an empty field, Fields watches her children play in the playground adjacent to the plot.  It is they, she says, who give her the determination to make the Liberated Urban Farm dream a reality.

“When I first took them out into the garden they were digging up the soil,” she said.  “That was the first time my six-year-old had seen an earthworm,” Fields said.  She’s hoping for many more “firsts” when her next garden takes root.

Posted in Bronx Life, FoodComments (2)

Fries and Pizza After Class Beat Out the Menu at School

by Amanda Staab


Fast food lures students after school. Photo by Amanda Staab

For some students in the South Bronx, the 3 p.m. bell doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time to go home. Instead, it signals lunchtime for many teens at Morris High School in Morrisania.

Dozens of students, who often skip both breakfast and lunch, make their way toward 165th Street to the nearest Chinese restaurant conveniently serving up French fries, their favorite, or cross Boston Road to a deli advertising fried chicken and pizza.

“This is not healthy, having this all the time after school, but it tastes better than what we are getting at school,” said senior Sereane Swanson, holding books in her arms while she waited for two friends to finish their fries, drenched with ketchup and barbecue sauce and reeking of grease.

Most of the teens appear to be healthy, but obesity is a growing problem in the Bronx. One third of high school students and two thirds of adults are either overweight or obese, according to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Though they may not want to believe it, the students, especially those with a junk food habit, are not immune to high cholesterol and hypertension.

“It’s not long before they’ll start having their heart attacks and their strokes,” said Alicia Flynn, a nutritionist at the nearby Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center. She often helps teen clients find healthier ways to snack and eat meals.

The Bloomberg administration has also tried to do its part and support initiatives to encourage New Yorkers to eat better. In addition to targeting trans fats in public restaurants, the city has made changes to food in schools. In the past two years, student lunches have experienced a makeover that included less fat and sodium and more whole grains.

But many teens say they just don’t eat the food even though half the high school students in the South Bronx are eligible for a free or reduced lunch.

“It’s nasty,” said senior Malaysia Scott, who’ll only eat the French fries.

Another student, sophomore Raul Lopez, said he usually only eats the pizza or chicken fingers. But, he admitted, he prefers fatty foods.

Still, other students said they can get fruits and vegetables in their cafeteria, even if they are required to fill up a full tray of food they don’t necessarily want in order to get them.

“Even though it’s a waste of food, you have to get a tray,” said sophomore Diamond Carothers. Students take what they intended to get and throw away the rest.

This strikes a chord with Flynn. She’s not sure how much food is wasted in Bronx schools, but, she said, “if someone can calculate it, then we have something to yell and scream about.”

In addition to teaching kids the value of what they throw away, Flynn said schools might consider inviting private vendors into their cafeterias to offer students healthy meals, maybe even ethnic foods that they just might like, in exchange for vouchers.

“Food is food,” said senior Juan Vasquez. “You can’t waste it. If you’re hungry, you got to eat. It’s unhealthy to not eat when you’re hungry.”

That  attitude is precisely the root of the obesity problem among young people in the Bronx, said Flynn. “When you skip meals, you throw your metabolism off, you slow it down,” she said. This makes it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it, which can put a teenager on the road to obesity.

In an effort to promote more healthy eating, the Bloomberg administration recently put more restrictions on school bake sales, which traditionally helped student raise money for extracurricular activities and trips. The move angers some students. “I would like to keep them,” said junior Aaron Heatley. “It brings more money to the school for funding.” The restrictions, which are being implemented this year,  allow schools to have one bake sale a month as long as it takes place after lunch and raises money for the Parent-Teacher Associations and other parent groups. Between sales, said Heatley, the kids will just have to sell candy instead.

Even Flynn doesn’t think the restriction is helpful. The bake sales teach kids to work together for a common cause, she said, and having dessert once in a while isn’t such a bad thing. “As a nutritionist, I say go ahead and have your cake, just know how much you can have,” said Flynn.

The city also plans to make healthful improvements to the snack selection in vending machines at schools. Students said they don’t know many classmates who can afford to use the vending machines too often, but it might be a good start to getting kids on track to better health.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Education, FoodComments (0)

Tough Choices at the Market in East Tremont

by Sarah Wali

For the past six months, Harrilal Ramlakhan has managed to avoid buying most of his food from local supermarkets. He is a community gardener who plants and sells his own fruits, vegetables and spices. But when the seasons turn and the cold settles in, he will have to switch his gardening tools for a shopping cart, and the idea depresses him.

“All the stuff that they have in the grocery stores is mass production, heavy with chemical and fertilizer so that it can remain on the shelves,” he said.  “But when it comes to food value, you don’t have that.  They will advertise and tell you it’s the best it’s the best but there’s nothing in it. “

With Ramlakhan and other farmers coming to the end of their season, residents of the Bronx’s East Tremont watch hopelessly as their strongest source of health food, the farmer’s market shuts, down.   Now they have to turn to bodegas, small markets, or supermarket bargain shopping, where price takes precedence over nutrition.

Most shoppers go to the largest supermarket in the area, Western Beef. The massive warehouse-like structure on Prospect Avenue is part of a chain of 21 full service supermarkets.  The company’s marketing strategy is to get full service markets in areas that have been shunned by other large corporations.

Western Beef, Inc. claims to offer service tailored to the ethnic needs of the community while taking income levels into consideration.  They offer products from the Goya line for the growing Latino population in the Bronx, along with exotic fruits such as yampi, a type of yam, and ajicito, a small pepper from the Dominican Republic, for a reasonable price.

Most customers arrive at the store with bargain flyers highlighting this week’s specials instead of grocery lists.   Ahdreanna Astudello, 49, says she only buys what is on the flyer.   She’s unemployed at the moment and says she has no choice.

Bargain shopping is a necessity for many residents in the Bronx.  For the borough with the highest unemployment rate, economics takes precedence over health, and it’s showing.    According to the New York Department of Health, 31 percent of South Bronx residents are obese, the highest rate in the city.  They attribute this to physical inactivity and lack of nutrition because of poor food choices.

Astudello is forced to stretch her dollars as thin as possible, and that affects her grocery shopping.

“Instead of milk, I drink Diet Coke,” said Astudello.  “It’s cheaper.”

Milk costs $2.99 a gallon at Western Beef, while a two-liter of Pepsi Diet Coke, is only sale for $1.99 cents.    The mother of two doesn’t have many healthy choices in her hand.  She considers taking advantage of the two for $5 deal on Florida’s Natural Orange Juice, but decides against it.

Most of the foods in the bargain flyer have little nutritional value, and are high in carbs, calories and fats.  Little Debbie is a popular product on the list, with their cupcakes, oatmeal creme pies and honey buns on sale.  At four for $5, the honey buns are a steal to Astudello.  She pays little notice to the nutrition facts, and isn’t concerned with the 12 grams of fat per bun.

Passion Bryant, 22, supplements fresh fruits and vegetables with canned foods. “The vegetables they have aren’t that fresh anyway, “ she said.  “I might as well buy it in a can.  It lasts longer and is cheaper.”

Bryant visits the farmer’s market when they are in season.  Although she was disappointed with the size of the market and the quality of food, she knows it’s better for her than the can of Libby’s fruits that’s on sale for 50 cents each.

Next Bryant heads for the cereal isle.  She doesn’t even glance at the healthier choices offered by Post, and priced at about $4.50.  Instead she heads straight for the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes, and gets two for $5.

Unhealthy choices in the bargain flyer are not unique to Western Beef.  Supermarkets all over the South Bronx neighborhood are offering discounts on ice cream, frozen pizza and cakes, with few healthy alternatives.

Fine Fare, the second largest supermarket in the area, has a Snack-Tacular Savings section which entices customers with selections such as Lays XXL Potato Chips at two for $6 and two Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats or Cinnabon Carmel Bars for $5.

Sonya Santiago says the choice is hers, and she chooses to feed her four grandchildren vegetable and produce.   They go through about a gallon of milk a day, and if the children want a snack,  she tries to be healthy by giving them Apple Jacks, fruit or apple sauce.

“Junk food is not allowed in my house,” she said.  “If I am going to spend my money it will be on something that is worth it.”

Santiago feels that although the quality of the produce in larger markets isn’t perfect, it’s a better in the long run.  She sees it as an investment in her family’s health. Besides, she argued, the produce is often on sale too.  Although prices don’t dip as low as the farmer’s market, with a little budgeting she is able to satisfy her family’s appetite without the health risk.

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In Marble Hill, an Oasis Amid a Food Desert

by Connor Boals

Sarah Shaikh, community outreach organizer for Schervier Nursing Care Facility, isn’t pleased with the healthy options for the residents of the West Bronx neighborhood of Marble Hill. Read the full story

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A Garden of Happiness Grows in East Tremont

by Sarah Wali

Karen Washington traces her persuasive powers as a community leader back to 1966, when she was 12 years old. Her younger brother had insulted much bigger kids, and they were standing outside their building in Harlem waiting to beat him up.  Her mother pleaded with Karen to go down and calm the rowdy bunch.

Karen stood tall and confident, and in a wise voice beyond her years told the big kids that her brother didn’t mean what he said, and that they probably didn’t want to get in trouble for hitting him.

She surprised them, she said, by confounding their expectations of African American women. “They don’t even know me, but they have this preconceived idea that I’m black, I’m loud, I’m uneducated,” said Washington. “So I use that sort of persona then with educated language and I get people to listen.”

Within five minutes, she had talked the angry teenagers out of hitting her brother.

Now, at 55, Karen Washington uses similar conflict resolution techniques to solve bigger problems in her current Bronx neighborhood.  In the 21 years that she has lived in East Tremont, she has taken on tough issues, such as crack and cocaine and street violence.  She brings the same focus and passion to her latest mission — providing healthy food to low-income New Yorkers and using neighborhood gardens to create community and ultimately battle crime.

“The social issues intertwine with food,” she said. “When you don’t have money and you can’t provide for your family, you are going to buy the cheapest food items for your family and you see an increase in crime.  You need to feed your family.”

Washington created La Familia Verde, a coalition of 12 community gardens in East Tremont in 1992, and started a local Bronx farmer’s market where everyone could sell their produce. She joined the board of Just Food, an organization which connects local and urban farms with communities, and the Mary Mitchell Center, a community center blocks from her house.

When Washington was looking to find funding for the Mary Mitchell Center, she called the one person she knew could help, U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano.  She went to Washington, and explained how the center was going to fight crime by keeping kids of the street in after school activities, and increase job productivity by offering technology classes.

“He sees it,” said Washington. “He sees that people in low-income areas may not have the resources but we do have the knowledge and the power.”

Her passion for improving lives led her first to Hunter College, where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in physical therapy.   By 1981, she had completed a master’s degree in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics, and began her career as a physical therapist.

Washington moved into 2161 Prospect Ave. in East Tremont from Harlem in 1985 to give her children, Kendra and Bryant, more space to play. The cozy row house seemed a perfect place to raise her little boy and girl, except for an empty lot across the street.  She was told developers were using the plot to build a row of houses similar to hers, but when they found too much bedrock in the soil, they abandoned the idea and the plot.

“Year after year, there was garbage and vans and stuff like that,” said Washington.    “If you live near garbage, people think that you are that garbage, and we are not garbage.”

Although she was working full-time as a physical therapist, Washington — with the help of her neighbor, Jose Lugo — set out to save the desolate patch of land.    By 1989, she had successfully petitioned Green Thumb, a city Parks and Recreations group, to help her transfer the city-owned plot to a community garden, the Garden of Happiness.

Neighbors flocked to the new garden to plant collard greens, mustard greens, kale, cantaloupe, corn, string beans and squash.  They spent hours comparing gardening tips, vegetables and stories about life in the Bronx.

“I learned they were having problems with health, schools, housing and jobs,”  she said.  “I felt that the community gardening work I do is great because it also helped bring out the social issues that were affecting the community, and they were huge.”

At first, Washington was hesitant about going to a community meeting.  She was a mother of two juggling a full time job and the management of the Garden of Happiness.    However, after much coaxing by a neighbor, she finally attended a Crotona Community Coalition meeting, and it changed her life.

“When I walked in there I saw at least 50 people talking about the same problems that were going on in the neighborhood,” she said.  “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not alone.’ ”

Washington became a regular at both the Crotona meetings and the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she presented solutions to the major issues the community was facing. When she was called upon, she marched up to the podium with her gray-streaked dredlocks swinging behind her, and in a firm tone gave solutions to community issues.

As she spoke, her eyes opened wide exuding the passion she felt for the cause.  Members would discuss issues with her after the meeting, and she would stand quietly looking at the floor, with her head tilted towards them listening attentively.

Kendra went on to become a school principal and Bryant an inspector for the Department of Health, and Washington focused more of her efforts on her community.

In 2003, she accepted the role of president of the North West Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition.  The Rev. Jai Dean of the Community Church, which is based in both the Bronx and Brooklyn, attributes the changes she has made to her ability to network and grab the right people’s attention.

“She was active, she knew the politicians, and she knew who to call to get things done,” he said.

Last year, she took her concerns to a City Council hearing.  There, she spoke about the problems she had encountered with the Green Thumb program.

“By the time she had finished her presentation, it was like we can all go home now,” said Dyanne Norris, principal administrative associate for Green Thumb.  “She was most articulate, and the one person who presented answers to the questions, and I was just overwhelmed.”

Washington focused her efforts on providing the tools her community would need to succeed. In 2005, a devastating fire in the Garden of Happiness reassured her that her community appreciated and needed the work she had done.

“We stood out there, and we were crying,” she said.  “Then the neighbors came by to pat us on the back and say ‘Don’t worry, we’ll build again.’ I knew right then and there how much the community loved that garden.”

She applied for the grant program at Orange Thumb, a garden tool making company, explaining the situation at the Garden of Happiness.  The application was accepted and the group was awarded $4,500 in cash and Home Depot gift certificates.

“That’s my passion,” she said. “I love to grow food.”

One rainy Sunday afternoon in October, Washington sat at her East Tremont kitchen, eating yogurt and granola, listening to WFAN. The Yankees were beating the Red Sox.

Ashley and Noodles, her two rescue cats, played at her feet.

She looked out her window at the Garden of Happiness, and smiled.

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